Must-see summer exhibition: Roger Ballen’s ‘Retrospective’ at Bozar
Yes, those pictures sure got my head tolling. They reminded me of the work of many other great photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson. Even Joel-Peter Witkin. They made me think of paintings. They made me think of ways to capture the elusive. I was in awe of Roger Ballen’s talent for composition and for catching ‘the right moment’. I liked that touch of surrealism and that unsettling feeling those pictures always seem to give you. Or the way Ballen plays with concepts such as ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’. They made me think, feel and smile at the same time. Yes, I noticed the recurring elements – those wires, chalk drawings and animals – but nevertheless those pictures each and every time again seemed to get to me.
Roger Ballen (New York City, 1950) is an American photographer who spends most of his time in South-Africa. His mother used to be a photo editor for Magnum and thus Ballen grew up around great photographs. Although he has taken pictures since he was a boy, photography was just a hobby until he was 50 years old. Ballen used to work as a geologist first and foremost. He always shoots in black-and-white, and in the square format. ‘I’m very formalistically oriented’, he says. ‘With a square everything in the photograph is equal. I believe my work is ultimately very minimalistic in the means by which I work with elements of form; and the nature of black and white being what it is suits this approach.’
The photographs that would become his first book, Boyhood (’78), were created during ‘a trip that started out as a two month excursion and wound up lasting nearly five years’, in which he hitchhiked from Cairo to Capetown, and from Istanbul to New Guinea. During that period he spent some time in South Africa and started to work in the mineral business.
Dorps was published eight years later. ‘It was my goal was to capture the unique aesthetic qualities of South African small towns. And so I went from town to town; in those days, I was working in geology and also taking photographs. It was a five-year project, and I went to nearly every small town and village in South Africa.’ Platteland was published in ’94. It made Ballen’s name and led to a lot of controversy as well. ‘The concept was trying to photograph or document an archetypal group of people living in the South African countryside, faced with revolution, fear, alienation, isolation, and rejection.’
‘I got in a lot of trouble with that book, living in South Africa. I was arrested and had death threats. It surprised me that all of a sudden I created this overwhelming disapproval. In the media, the white South African population had been seen as professional and strong-looking – something essentially that Hitler tried to present to the rest of the world. And suddenly these photographs became what the white population was, or at least one aspect of it. It became quite a talking point. It was not what the rest of the world thought about the population; it went against their preconceived image. I think it was a revelation to a lot of people, not only in South Africa, but outside of South Africa.’
For Outland (2001) Ballen – who by then was called ‘the guy who photographed poor whites in South-Africa’ -decided to create pictures that didn’t necessarily had to do with South Africa. ‘The images became stripped of any signs and symbols that could somehow lead you back to South Africa. ‘I wanted them to have a universal sensibility. So everything that led you to belive the pictures were taken in South Africa in Dorps and Platteland were stripped out in Outland.’ It’s something you’ll see in Ballen’s most recent collections of pictures too: Shadow chamber (2005) and Boarding house (2009). You’ll see him gradually moving away from faces as well.
What I really like is the almost painterly quality of Ballen’s work. And that hint of surrealism. ‘People have a complex reaction to the Boarding house photos because there is an aspect to them that is very real and earthy and harsh and in front of your face. You can almost smell the pictures. But on the other hand they are very surrealistic and dreamlike. Some people are not quite sure how to place these works. They can’t deny them, though. It’s a subconscious challenge… like when you’re half asleep and you’re not sure that the dream you’re dreaming is real. That type of state of consciousness is what we live in all the time, really. So this is a photograph of that state as much as anything else.’
And if you might be wondering – like I did – what all those wires in those pictures are for, this is Ballen’s explanation. ‘It’s very interesting—when somebody looks at something as wire-ly as, say, a Miro painting, this issue is never What is this about? It’s just seen as an abstract line. In photography, since the basis of photography is capturing reality, people always want to know what the meaning of the wires is. In painting, you don’t ask that question. It’s there. It’s part of the composition. So in photography, one wants to place it in some objective format. When one looks at the wire, one has to understand the dual mechanism that’s behind the wire. One is What is that wire? What does it mean? What is the metaphor behind it? The other part of the issue is the formal qualities of the wire. What does the wire do in the photograph formally? In many cases, the wire is used to almost stitch the photograph together, to bind one part of the photograph to the other. So you have these two qualities to the wire—one is the formal quality, and the other is based on the metaphor of the content.’
You see? There’s just too much going on, in those pictures. And one last piece of advice. Do remember this quote, when you’re going over to Bozar to look at Ballen’s photographs. One firm – and some might say slightly controversial – belief stemming from years and years of experience, photographing people. ‘Behind the face is always the monkey.’
Do check out Roger Ballen’s website, here. You’ll be able to take at look at many more of his photographs. All the quotes in my text are taken from interviews from the ‘articles’-section (interviews published by Saatchi Gallery, Seesaw Magazine, Photonews and Eyemazing). All of Ballen’s books are published by Phaidon. You can order them from Phaidon’s site, here. Roger Ballen’s ‘Retrospective’ at Bozar (Brussels), through September 26. Info here.